Chris Maka over at the Howling Curmudgeons just doesn't like Darkseid, the cosmic dictator created by comics legend Jack Kirby. Filtering through all the talk about "Fanboy Blasphemy" and the preemptive dread of a backlash--and accepting that the more a blogger talks about the heresy of their views, the more orthodox they probably are--Chris makes a good point about the relative paucity of great Darkseid stories.
He does cite three notable exceptions (the Legion's Great Darkness Saga, Kirby's original Fourth World comics, and the Superman animated series), and to be fair, they comprise thirty or forty great comics and a couple years of a fantastic television series; every character should be so lucky. After that, though, the pickings do begin to thin out, and Darkseid has certainly had more than his share of lousy appearances (see "Byrne, John").
But any character can be ruined by overexposure. Look what's happened to the Joker--a couple of great stories from the seventies have stretched out into a thirty-year bloodbath that's made him all but impossible to accept as a recurring character. However, that's mostly due to hack writers turning to a homicidal Joker for shock value (or because they can't think of anything else that month). Darkseid poses a different problem. A great many superhero writers and artists are fans of Jack Kirby (if they aren't, they may be in the wrong line of work) and they all want to take their own shot at writing his greatest creations, but most of them just aren't up to the task. They may derive a certain thrill from writing their versions of Darkseid but that rarely translates to the readers.
I can think of at least two more classic Darkseid appearances that Chris overlooks: the X-Men/Teen Titans crossover (it's all about his calm poise--hands clasped behind his back--as he faces down Dark Phoenix) and Rock of Ages in JLA. Maybe it's not a coincidence that both of those stories end with his apparent death. Darkseid is a character who was supposed to have a finite arc, an ending, before DC denied Kirby the opportunity to bring his story to a close, and some of his most memorable stories try to supply it.
Of course, so do many of his least memorable ones. My first exposure to Darkseid was probably Justice League of America #185, the last part of a JLA/JSA/New Gods crossover and one of the first JLA issues drawn by George Perez right after veteran JLA artist Dick Dillin died. Looking back it's a thoroughly generic comic, with one of the obviously impermanent deaths that often cap off Darkseid's appearances, although I was too young to know that at the time. I don't recall what Darkseid said or did in this run-of-the-mill story that caught my attention--maybe it was just the hubris of this grandiose villain getting destroyed by his own Omega Effect--but it must have carried some tiny spark of his original power.
Darkseid is one of the great archetypal characters, and one of the last to arrive in comics. Most of them were created back in the thirties or forties; the next wave came with Marvel in the sixties; most of today's young turks are still middle-aged grouches from the seventies like Frank Castle or Wolverine. But just before the creativity ended Kirby gave us Darkseid, the stone-faced tyrant from outer space who inspired one highly successful copy (Jim Starlin's Thanos) and a less successful copy of a copy (Jim Starlin's Mongul, now routinely used as a punching bag to show how tough some johnny-come-lately is) as well as any number of more fleeting and forgettable imitators. The best of these characters aren't just antagonists in any particular plot, they are fascism personified, its means and desires incarnated in humanoid form. Thanos lays bare its psychosexual death drive, and brilliantly, but Darkseid is a more mature, more psychologically stable, and therefore far more threatening figure: imagine a Hitler who's both physically intimidating and not the slightest bit insane. Darkseid is what Hitler wanted to be, the visions he sold to himself in his sleep made real. A walking dream, or nightmare, of total control.
His control is so total that it even transcends interpretation. Grant Morrison, one of the few Kirby epigones to really understand the Fourth World characters, gave him the perfect slogan in Rock of Ages: "Darkseid is." The implication being that he's so powerful, so all-controlling, that he doesn't need to say what he is. Eventually he's everything, or the only thing, and even in our world, where he mercifully remains just a comic book supervillain in a weird little miniskirt and thigh boots, his authoritarian drive is so primal and so pure that he doesn't have to symbolize anything to generate meaning, he just is.
And while he has the gift of smack-talk that comes with all the great Kirby characters...
I like you, Glorious Godfrey! You're a shallow, precious, child--the revelationist--happy with the sweeping sound of words! But I AM THE REVELATION!
...he joins it to a bracing honesty that regularly deflates the rhetoric of both his sycophantic followers (he's dressing down his own propagandist up there, shoving him squarely back in his place) and his young, frequently naive opponents. (And yes, I'm polishing up a comment to a previous Chris Maka post here.) It's an old chestnut that the greatest villains--Magneto, Doom, Luthor when he's not wearing the Kingpin's hand-me-downs--don't think they're villains, even see themselves as the heroes of their own stories. Darkseid is all the more chilling for knowing exactly what he is and what he's doing, and not feeling the slightest remorse.
He even knows that a piece of him persists into the young heroes who battle him, especially the two he can claim as his sons. In one of the shortest and best bits of Kirby smack-talk in the Fourth World saga, Darkseid appears as Scott Free (soon to become Mister Miracle) crawls through a mass-gravity field towards a Boom Tube that will take him away from dismal Apokolips to a fragile sanctuary on Earth. But Darkseid does nothing to stop him. In part it's because he's arranged this event, he wants Scott to escape so he can break his pact with New Genesis and resume his war, but there's more at stake than cosmopolitics as he screams
HE CAN TAKE IT! I'll not stop him now! If courage and bravery took him here--some of it was MINE!
Darkseid knows, and Kirby knows, that the drives he embodies--for control, for power, for domination--are part of all of us. Even Scott Free can never fully escape Darkseid. None of us can. That's what makes him so terrifying.
That's what makes him so great.